PDX Dispatch 2.17.23: We’re Dying Here


Multnomah County publishes something called the Domicile Unknown Report to record homeless deaths, just released for the year 2021, counting at least 196 deaths on the street, not including homeless who die in hospital or other care. That number is up from 126 in 2020.

Meth and Fentanyl related overdoses accounted for 129, or sixty-five percent, of those deaths. Only two cases of Covid fatalities were recorded through 2020 and 2021.

Two of the individuals identified in Domicile Unknown in 2021 succumbed to COVID-19. A third death due to complications from chronic alcohol abuse also listed a positive test for COVID-19 at the time of death. No COVID-19 deaths were identified by the Medical Examiner in 2020, the year the pandemic arrived.

Methamphetamine, an illicit stimulant drug that can overstress the brain and heart, remains a significant factor. Meth contributed to 93 deaths — nearly half of all deaths, and 82% of all deaths involving unknown substances — the highest total number and highest percentage of total cases since Domicile Unknown was first published.

Fentanyl, a potent opiate increasingly sold as cheap pills on the street, was a primary or contributing factor in 36 deaths (32%), a dramatic increase from four deaths the previous year, and one to two deaths a year since it was first recorded as a factor in 2017.

Four people died of overheating during the devastating “heat dome” event that took place from June 25 to June 30, 2021, and hypothermia contributed to one additional death among people experiencing homelessness. However, more people experiencing homelessness died of cold in 2021 than heat. There were eight deaths in which hypothermia, or low body temperature, contributed — up from three deaths in 2020.

Police defunding likely contributes to increasing homicides among the homeless just as it does among the criminal and knucklehead classes:

In 2021, more people experiencing homelessness died of homicides than at any time since 2011, more than doubling from eight in 2020 to 18. That mirrors an 83% increase in overall homicides documented by the Portland Police Bureau, which reported 90 homicides.

Perhaps related, the state is cutting back on criminal pathologists:

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon State Police confirmed to KOIN 6 that a staffing crisis in the State Medical Examiner’s Office means services to counties could be suspended as soon as July.

Of Oregon’s 36 counties, 14 currently rely on the SMEO which means if services are cut, counties will be responsible for signing death certificates in routine cases. This will allow the SMEO to prioritize infant deaths and deaths suspected to be homicide.

According to an email obtained by KOIN 6, the SMEO has been understaffed for more than three decades, but its workload has more than doubled in the last five or so years, thanks to COVID, the opioid epidemic, increasing homicide rates and struggling county systems.

It would be helpful to see those numbers broken down. Meanwhile if this was 2020 we’d be hearing breathless stories about how the new morgues being built for the bodies piling up around the state must be due to Covid:

In the meantime, the SMEO is working to increase workspace and cold storage at the Clackamas morgue, along with building new morgue facilities in both Eugene and Central Point, which aren’t expected to be complete until 2026.

We expect to catch more bodies. Oregon experienced 20,374 excess deaths against a five-year average in 2022 according to the Oregon Health Authority, ascribing 9,033 of those to Covid. Fentanyl, which is said to be so cheap now you can get high for a couple of dollars, is blowing up in use and attendant overdoses and combines with meth to account for the vast majority of drug overdoses. Still reduced policing and Measure 110, legalizing drug possession, go unmentioned in the OHA report:

Unintentional or undetermined fentanyl overdose deaths jumped more than 600% between 2019 and 2021, from 71 to 509. Of unintentional or undetermined drug overdose deaths in 2021, 47.5% were due to fentanyl. 

“While exact reasons for the overdose increases are unknown, public health officials have long suspected that disruptions to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been a factor,” OHA wrote in a press release. “Those with substance use disorder have been hit particularly hard by job losses, school closures and social isolation resulting from restrictions put in place to limit exposure and transmission of the virus.” 

People are despairing, and not over Covid. Oregon had 893 suicides in 2021; I don’t know if that includes medically assisted suicides, for which the state is becoming a suicide destination.

In 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, doctors prescribed 383 fatal drug doses and 238 people ended their lives — mostly white people aged 65 and above suffering from cancer or diseases of the brain or heart.

Oregon’s groundbreaking Measure 110, passed by voters in 2020, legalized drug possession, diverting tax revenues from marijuana sales and police budgets to treatment and newly created “Addiction Recovery Centers”. An Oregon Secretary of State audit found in the two years since nobody knows where the money is going, inadequate records are being kept and addicts are showing up for treatment referrals–issued in lieu of arrest–at a rate of about one percent. Administration of the treatment program falls to twenty people, the Measure 11 Oversight and Accountability Council of mostly former addicts, who in an embarrassing (apparent) oversight all serve terms scheduled to end on the same day, requiring bringing in a whole new crew; of course with their performance that may be a good thing. This Willamette Week article suggests the Oregon Health Authority is handing out cash with little oversight

Although much of the information in the audit has been previously reported, audits director Kip Memmott said he found most surprising the “hands-off” stance the Oregon Health Authority took in getting treatment dollars out the door. “That was a little disappointing,” Memmott said.

In response to the overarching question of whether Measure 110 is working, Memmott said, “It’s too early to tell.”

His team’s summary, however, made it clear things have not gone well.

“There is a significant risk that policy makers and the public will be unable to gauge the impacts and effectiveness of M110 due to existing grant management and data collection efforts,” auditors wrote.

and the newly created Oversight and Accountability Council is providing little of either:

They added that the Measure 110 Oversight and Accountabilty Council, which brought together about 20 people, most of whom had experienced substance use disorder, to award grants to treatment providers, struggled to fulfill its duties, and the OHA “failed to provide enough support to ensure implementation of M110 was successful.”

The audit describes a sometimes chaotic past two years. Counties decriminalized drugs soon after the measure passed, but because of a lack of planning and a complex grant-making process, the OAC didn’t allocate $300 million in new funding for treatment and services…

During the initial implementation of M110, OHA awarded $33 million in Access to Care grants. Little to no data was collected by OHA for these awards, and auditors were unable to determine the effectiveness of the Access to Care grants. OHA could not provide data that showed how these funds were spent or how these grants improved access to substance use disorder treatment and services.

The de-criminalization takes place literally overnight but the imagined boon in successful treatment (I say) won’t materialize. The “treatment not imprisonment” movement, part of the broader “racial justice” movement, will not be swayed by mere failure. Addiction advocates are clearly more concerned with de-criminalization than treatment, and will take the former without the latter. But if anyone was paying attention, Oregon is putting the treatment over incarceration model to the test right now.

The state is also experiencing a shortage of public defenders that’s resulted in hundreds of dismissed cases, some violent felonies, so far.

A Thousand Points of Blight

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez announced an immediate temporary suspension of tent and tarp distribution Tuesday following a series of tent-related fires in public spaces.

Gonzalez, who is also the Public Safety commissioner, halted distribution within his bureaus after a fire Tuesday morning under the Morrison Bridge at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard led to the death of a mother dog and six puppies.

No human injuries were reported, but authorities said the investigation is still ongoing.

In a public press release, Gonzalez called the tent and tarp-related fires “a dire public safety emergency,” that puts first responders, homeless individuals and neighborhoods at risk.

“I am taking immediate action to save lives and protect Portlanders from life-shattering injuries,” Gonzalez said. “To Portland’s houseless community members: I implore you to seek shelter in public warming shelters during cold weather events.”

Fire Marshal Kari Schimel said Portland Fire Department has been called upon 1,015 times for tent and tarp-related fires within the past two years, adding that each incident put the first responder’s lives at risk. 

“Given the heat sources generating these fires and the flammable nature of the materials in question…there is no such thing as a safe, unsanctioned fire in a tent,” Schimel said.

Despite Tuesday’s decision, tents are unlikely to disappear any time soon: The county has purchased over 22,000 over the past two years.

City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez is new, having won election over police abolitionist hellion Jo Ann Hardesty last November. Hardesty, a life-long opponent of policing and a local NAACP leader, was elected in 2018 when the city was firmly in the grips of anti-Trump hysteria and electing its “first black woman” to the council seemed the least it could do; political neophyte, lawyer and businessman Gonzalez displaced her in 2022’s regretful hangover following Hardesty’s successful 2020 police reforms.

One thought on “PDX Dispatch 2.17.23: We’re Dying Here

  1. It’s quite something to watch a community (civilization?) collapse in real time. I’m beginning to wonder if they aren’t all really suicidal. If they only believe in the world they imagine – diversitopia – is a a cat-and-mouse game, and it isn’t working out, and they secretly believe in nothing but emptiness and irony, maybe they just want to end it.

    Liked by 1 person

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